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Using Literature in the Music Class for Black History Month:

Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter

By Kit Eakle


We music teachers are often asked to integrate our programs with other subjects. While we often feel this dilutes our own curriculum, there are many opportunities for integration that can highlight the power of music, and help us show how music can be integrated into other subjects rather than the other way around.


Black History Month, coming up in February provides such an opportunity.


I find it wonderful to use literature in the music classroom, and especially literature that can be made to include written music in the text. For February’s Black History Month there are a multitude of such books to choose from. My favorite is Follow the Drinking Gourd, with story and pictures by Jeanette Winter (published by Dragonfly Books, 1988, ISBN 0679819975);

This books gives strong voice to some of the most important aspects of African American music, and illustrates the power of music and song in fulfilling a practical purpose.


 “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is an authentic folk song used to help slaves find their way north along the Underground Railway. Each line of the song describes a marker to help the slaves find their way to Canada, and the first line is responded to with: (a repeat of the call)

and the next a call of:

answered by:

 (This is a LOW LA — as this is a LA based tune as we‘ll discuss later)


This is a classic “call and response” song. Call and Response is a common characteristic of African American music. {You might discuss why this would be (It comes from field hollers and work songs as well as church music, and is a way for people to learn stories when they were not allowed to learn to read.) }


The initial step in creating a lesson plan for each might involve teaching the song by singing the call to the students and having the kids sing the response. This can be done without describing the technique until after the song is well learned. Then teach the kids the technical name — “Call and Response” and ask them why this song might be called a “Call and Response” song. If the term is already known, ask them to identify the technique employed in the song in hopes of getting a “Call and...” response on their own.


Once the song, or at least the responses are learned, try adding a simple ostinato to the tune: .


This ostinato, with its accent on the off-beat, 2 & 4 is also typical of African American music generally. Spirituals, Jazz, and Rhythm and Blues all are partially defined by the “Back-beat” feel created with this ostinato. I once had the origins of this explained to me by a master African drummer. He told me that in Africa the connection with the land is so great, that his people feel the beat coming from the earth. Rather than interfering with the power of that initial beat, the musician or dancers respond to it, clapping on the off-beat.


Ask your kids to imagine being a slave working hard hoeing the fields. Have them “hoe” to the ostinato pattern and sing the song. Change the hoeing to clapping. Somewhere in this process, when the rhythmic feel is strong, notice the ground beneath your feet and see if you cannot feel the earth slapping your feet, and see if your feet don’t slap back on the 2 and 4!


Now ask the kids to remember that this beat was telling about finding freedom in the north. Remember that your father mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter, were sold away. Remember that you must work hard every day for no money, and that you are often beaten. Remember that there is no chance for changing any of this, without escaping and taking a dangerous journey to a place you’ve never been with people out to capture you everywhere. And remember to FEEL the earth moving under your feet!


And after all that — NOW what does the song mean to you?


It is now time to read Jeanette Winter’s lovely book. I sincerely believe that books like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” which have music as a part of the story, provide a unique opportunity to expose kids to written music. Therefore I have written out the “Drinking Gourd” song verse by verse and inserted each verse in the actual text of the book. I use non-permanent glue sticks to do this so as not to permanently deface the book. This book is very adaptable to this technique, as there are sufficient margins of white paper to do so without affecting the rest of the text. You can get all the music you need here.


[Go HERE to find the music and get details on how and where to place the music in your copy of the book. You will also find lessons and other songs and books to use for Black History month in music classes at http://www.musickit.com /blackhistorymonth .]


The book tells of an actual slave escape experience following the directions from the song in a way that young kids can understand. The delightful pictures make the experience all the more accessible to young students.


Now that the children know and appreciate the depth of meaning conveyed in the song, there are also many possibilities for musical learning to be found in “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”


As this song is NOT a “DO” based song, perhaps the kids will notice it does not end on DO. Discuss with the kids what note the song DOES end on. Of course it is a “LA” based tune. This song could used for introducing the Aeolian mode. It would also serve as a good vehicle for introducing the minor key. Why is this song so effective in minor? Does the minor key lend the song more seriousness? Is Aeolian ALWAYS serious or sad?


Listen carefully to the first response: “D R— LD L L-”. If the kids are familiar with low La, ask them to identify the solfa. If they are not, the response might be used to reinforce the low La in the future. This might also be a place to show that certain melodic fragments can be represented by the same solfa. Sing the familiar “S - L- M” then “S L— M S MM” and discuss how this is the same melody as the song and why we do not call it that in the song.


In this vein, you might also find other familiar songs that use the “D R L” motif. My 2nd grade kids sang a round for our winter concert this year that centers on this pattern to sound like Cathedral bells:


Kids might also create new words for the song that would tell a secret path or message of their own. Start with the response once more. For instance the Wizard of Oz might sing to Dorothy: “Follow— the yellow brick road” or a pirate might sing, “Go to— where X marks the spot.” Then create more detailed directions for the calls.


I hope this gives you enough ideas to get you started on using this wonderful resource, Follow the Drinking Gourd, with story and pictures by Jeanette Winter (published by Dragonfly Books, 1988, ISBN 0679819975) in your classroom. There is also a good recording of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” on a children’s CD by Bay Area musicians, Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb and Linda Tillery. It’s called “Shakin’ a Tail Feather” first issued in 1997 by Music for Little People. There are also innumerable resources describing this song and the slave experience on the internet. For a full listing go to  http://www.musickit.com /blackhistorymonth


You will also find more of my favorite children’s storybooks for Black History Month with music, including “Harriet and the Promised Land,” a book on Harriet Tubman with a poem by the great African American artist, Jacob Lawrence for which I have written a melody, and a version of “We Shall Overcome” to go with Faith Ringgold’s “My Dream of Martin Luther King.” Whatever lessons you choose to teach, be sure to explore the roots of the unique and profound musical contribution made by Afro-Americans during a Black History month.



Kit Eakle is president-elect of NCAKE. He is author of the MusicTale, In My Grandmother’s Garden. He teaches music at Tiburon’s Reed Elementary School and maintains “MusicKit — A Virtual Music Classroom” at http://www.musickit.com.